How Partisan Media Polarize Americaby Matthew Levendusky
Forty years ago, viewers who wanted to watch the news could only choose from among the major broadcast networks, all of which presented the same news without any particular point of view. Today we have a much broader array of choices, including cable channels offering a partisan take. With partisan programs gaining in popularity, some argue that they are polarizing
Forty years ago, viewers who wanted to watch the news could only choose from among the major broadcast networks, all of which presented the same news without any particular point of view. Today we have a much broader array of choices, including cable channels offering a partisan take. With partisan programs gaining in popularity, some argue that they are polarizing American politics, while others counter that only a tiny portion of the population watches such programs and that their viewers tend to already hold similar beliefs.
In How Partisan Media Polarize America, Matthew Levendusky confirmsbut also qualifiesboth of these claims. Drawing on experiments and survey data, he shows that Americans who watch partisan programming do become more certain of their beliefs and less willing to weigh the merits of opposing views or to compromise. And while only a small segment of the American population watches partisan media programs, those who do tend to be more politically engaged, and their effects on national politics are therefore far-reaching.
In a time when politics seem doomed to partisan discord, How Partisan Media Polarize America offers a much-needed clarification of the role partisan media might play.
“Essential. . . . This is an important book on an important topic—the role cable television has played in helping create the hyper-partisan United States.”
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How Partisan Media Polarize America
how cable media polarize politics
By MATTHEW LEVENDUSKY
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The New Partisan Media Environment
A Tale of Two Frames
In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, would be brought to trial in a civilian court in New York City (Finn and Johnson 2009). The decision reflected a long debate within the Obama administration (and before that, the Bush administration) about how to prosecute terrorism suspects, in particular, whether to try them in civilian courts or military tribunals.
Obviously, such a high-profile announcement garnered an extensive amount of coverage and was duly reported in essentially all major television and newspaper outlets. Most of those outlets also discussed both supporters and critics of the administration's decision, giving readers and listeners "both sides" of the story. This type of balanced, objective coverage is consistent with long-standing journalistic norms in the U.S. press (Schudson 2001). Take, for example, the coverage on the PBS News Hour, which has been shown to be one of the most balanced and politically neutral news programs on television (Groseclose and Milyo 2005). When covering this story, the News Hour reported both on the decision itself and on the Republican criticism of the policy (PBS News Hour, 13 November 2009). Likewise, when Holder went to Capitol Hill to face questions from lawmakers about the announcement, the News Hour gave equal time to both his supporters and opponents (PBS News Hour, 18 November 2009). In all cases, the News Hour—like nearly all mainstream news programs—avoided offering an opinion on the day's events and stuck to a strictly objective, fact-based style of reporting.
But on other outlets, the frame for discussing Holder's announcement shunned these norms of objectivity and explicitly endorsed one side of the controversy. On The O'Reilly Factor, one of the top-rated programs on the Fox News Network, Bill O'Reilly argued that trying Mohammed in a civilian court was a terrible mistake—such a trial would give Mohammed a platform to promulgate his jihadist message around the globe. Further, the trial would release classified U.S. intelligence procedures, since under disclosure in a civilian courtroom, the government would be forced to hand over these documents to the defense. O'Reilly argued that the decision was a "sorry sordid little petty political maneuver" designed by the Obama administration to embarrass Bush administration officials. The goal was to put President Bush—and the enhanced interrogation techniques used by his administration—on trial (The O'Reilly Factor, 13 November 2009). Watching O'Reilly's show, or many other similar programs on Fox News, one would see few reasons to support the Obama administration's decision and far more reasons to oppose it. Indeed, given the flawed logic of the decision, one might wonder how anyone could support it at all.
Other outlets gave a similarly one-sided frame, but from the opposite perspective, defending the administration's decision to try Mohammed in a civilian court. On Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, the host offered a more liberal perspective, arguing that "our law beats their terror," and the best way to defend the American system of government was to give terrorists trials in civilian courts. This would allow the entire world to see that we treated all of the accused fairly—even self-proclaimed terrorists-thereby offering a profound lesson in America's belief in justice and the rule of law (Countdown with Keith Olbermann, 16 November 2009). MSNBC hosts and guests also argued that civilian trials offer a more effective means of convicting terrorism suspects. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois argued that since 9/11, the United States had successfully convicted 195 terrorism suspects who were tried in civilian courts, but only 3 such convictions were obtained for individuals tried in military tribunals (The Ed Show, 16 November 2009). As Rachel Maddow (another MSNBC host) argued, "If you are looking for the tried and true and tested way of delivering justice to terrorists, the federal courts, with the United States prosecutors of the Department of Justice are the proven way to go" (The Rachel Maddow Show, 16 November 2009). From this perspective, one might imagine that it is difficult to oppose the Obama administration's decision, in sharp contrast to the inference one might draw after watching Fox.
From Fox News and MSNBC, then, one got vastly different accounts of the same event. They gave quite contrasting perspectives and arguments about why their opinion is the superior one and why their argument should carry the day. Yet for all their striking differences, Fox and MSNBC have two important features in common. First, they both offer primarily one-sided arguments that advantage their own position, with plenty of opinionated commentary from the hosts, leaving no doubt as to where they stand on the issue. While they do discuss the opposing side's arguments, it is mostly to criticize them. The choice of guests only rein forces this tendency. By and large, the typical guest on these shows agrees with the host's point of view: Fox News invites on conservatives like Karl Rove or Liz Cheney, and MSNBC has on liberals like Dick Durbin. While there are obviously some exceptions to this policy, the norm is that hosts and guests agree, making these shows almost like an "echo chamber" of similar opinions (Jamieson and Cappella 2008), offering a particular partisan perspective on the day's news and events.
Second, programs on both Fox and MSNBC offer trenchant critiques of the other side. On Fox, hosts and guests offered stern criticism of President Obama and his decision. Former Bush administration official (and current Fox News commentator) Karl Rove argued that the decision would be "an utter, unmitigated disaster for the security of the United States" (The O'Reilly Factor, 13 November 2009). Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, said that Holder's decision was an "indefensible and insufficient way to defend the nation" (Hannity, 16 November 2009). Such comments are not only critical of this particular decision, but are used to illustrate a deeper, more fundamental critique of the president, namely, that he is an out-of-touch liberal—Rove argued that the president is "fundamentally way out on the left wing of American politics" (The O'Reilly Factor, 24 November 2009) and that while this decision in particular is flawed, it also demonstrates a consistent pattern of poor judgment.
Not to be outdone, MSNBC programs offered strident critiques of the Republicans who were criticizing the president. Keith Olbermann and his guests argued that Republican criticisms of the president were little more than "situational scaremongering" (Countdown with Keith Olbermann, 16 November 2009). Commentators here argued that Republican criticisms were motivated by efforts to score political points by frightening the public with the specter of terrorism: "This isn't about security. It's about political gain" (The Ed Show, 13 November 2009). Watching the Fox programs above, one would have questioned President Obama's ability to lead. On MSNBC, one would wonder the same about Republicans.
This situation is not unique to this particular case. As I will show in later chapters, on issue after issue, cable news networks, most especially Fox News and MSNBC, present starkly different interpretations of the day's stories. While traditional news outlets still emphasize balance and objectivity, these partisan media outlets provide a more one-sided take on the day's events. Ordinary citizens can align their news consumption with their ideological and partisan leanings by watching these shows—Democrats and liberals can tune in to shows on MSNBC, and Republicans and conservatives can flip to Fox News. Increasingly, more and more Americans choose to do just that: Americans now consume more partisan media than they did in the past (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2010), and they are especially likely to consume ideologically congenial media that matches their partisan outlook (Iyengar and Han 2009; Stroud 2011). News is no longer simply information; it can now be a reflection of one's political beliefs.
When subjects consume this sort of partisan media, they primarily hear an echo of their own beliefs and consequently also avoid dissonant information that cuts against their political opinions (Jamieson and Cappella 2008). When Republicans watch Fox News, they hear many conservative and Republican messages but far fewer liberal or Democratic ones; the reverse is true of Democrats who watch more left-wing media. This sort of reinforcing message might make subjects become more extreme, since they hear their own side's messages repeated to them without any countervailing arguments. Such programs, therefore, might potentially polarize the electorate (Sunstein 2009). Further, because these programs harshly criticize the other side, viewers might come to have less respect for the opposition and become less willing to compromise with them, and see them as less legitimate. So viewers watching these shows might come to think the opposition is untrustworthy and merits ridicule rather than respect (Jamieson and Hardy 2013).
Such tendencies potentially have normatively troubling consequences. America's constitutional system, with its multiple veto points and separation of powers, requires compromise. People can be passionate about issues and stand firm in their beliefs, but they have to be willing to compromise for American government to work effectively. Absent such compromise, the system is biased toward the status quo, and society fails to make necessary changes to policy (Gutmann and Thompson 2010, 2012). If partisan media harden citizens' beliefs and make them unwilling to compromise with and listen to the other side, then partisan media have deleterious consequences for American politics. Our contemporary political discourse is filled with claims that Americans—both masses and elites—are increasingly unwilling to compromise. Indeed, some have gone so far as to claim that it is "almost impossible" to achieve consensus solutions on important policy issues in the contemporary political environment (Price 2010). Do partisan media bear part of the blame for this division? Do they make it more difficult to actually govern in America?
To know whether partisan media have these troubling normative consequences, I need to address four related questions. First, do partisan media make citizens more polarized and divided? If citizens become more polarized and extreme, then it becomes harder to bridge the gap between the two sides. As Democrats and Republicans who consume partisan media drift toward the ideological poles, they have less and less common ground, and identifying consensus solutions becomes more difficult (Abramowitz 2010). If partisan media increase polarization in the mass public, then they contribute to gridlock and the difficulty of governing in contemporary America.
Second, do partisan media make citizens less trusting of the other side and less willing to compromise with them? Because partisan media harshly critique the other side and their policies, citizens might come to think the opposition does not have legitimate ideas, and may be less willing to compromise with them. If this occurs, then this has obvious consequences for gridlock and finding common ground on key issues.
Third, do partisan media shape how citizens behave in and understand elections? As President Obama himself has conjectured, partisan media outlets may shape election results because of their slanted discourse about the candidates and issues (Bai 2008). Elections are the most fundamental way for citizens to make their preferences known to elites, so it is vital to understand if—and how—partisan media might shape how viewers' evaluate and select candidates. If these outlets can shape which candidates get elected, this can impact the strategies these candidates pursue to win office, and which policies the winners pursue once in office.
But there is another, equally important way for partisan media to affect elections—they can shape how viewers interpret and understand the election outcomes. In the wake of an election, media outlets offer explanations for why a candidate won or lost: Obama was the candidate of change who benefited from a faltering economy (Holbrook, Clouse, and Weinschenk 2012); George W. Bush won in 2004 because of how he handled terrorism and Iraq (Langer and Cohen 2005). But partisan media, given their perspective, might be especially likely to embrace explanations that offer nefarious rationales for the outcome: "our" candidate lost not because of bad policies but, say, because of media bias (Mutz 2006b). If partisan media lead citizens to accept these sorts of odious interpretations, then it may delegitimize leaders and their policies once in office (Anderson et al. 2005; Mutz 2006b). This would, again, make it more difficult to govern. If an elected official was elected because of illegitimate means, then citizens may not feel compelled to accept his policies, again making common ground and consensus more elusive.
These first three questions explore the direct effects of partisan media on attitudes, willingness to compromise with the opposition, and elections. But even if I find strong effects in each area, a puzzle will still remain. These programs, while they have grown in popularity, still reach a relatively limited audience: the most popular partisan news program—The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News—attracts only a bit over three million viewers per evening (Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism 2011). Even if I summed the aggregate prime-time viewership for all partisan media programs, the total would still only come to a few percent of the U.S. population. The final question, therefore, is if only a tiny fraction of the population watches these shows, how can they have such important effects?
I take up these four questions in turn and argue that partisan media contribute to the difficulty of governing in contemporary America. First, I show that partisan media programs polarize attitudes, moving citizens toward ideological extremes. In particular, I show that partisan media increase polarization not by making moderates into extremists, but rather by taking citizens who were already somewhat extreme and making them even more extreme. Further, I also document how partisan media make citizens more convinced that their views are the "right" ones, so they become less willing to believe that other points of view have something legitimate to offer. Second, I demonstrate that partisan media make citizens less willing to trust the other party and less willing to support compromise with them, thereby contributing to persistent gridlock. Third, I show that partisan media influence vote choice, as well as how citizens come to understand elections. In particular, partisan media outlets make citizens more likely to accept nefarious interpretations when the other party wins elections, thereby casting doubt on the legitimacy of the winner. Together, these findings suggest that partisan media reify and harden divisions in the mass public, making it more difficult to achieve the compromise and consensus needed to actually govern.
Finally, I take up my fourth and final question—even if partisan media have important effects on their audience, do they matter for the nation as a whole if they only reach a tiny fraction of the mass public? I argue that partisan media do matter, in large part because their audience is particularly politically active and influential. Those who do watch partisan media are more involved and invested, and people who are political influential make up a disproportionate share of the audience for these programs (Bai 2009). Further, I explain how partisan media work to influence the agenda and help set the national debate on issues more broadly, which magnifies their effects on the political system. Partisan media have multiplier effects that allow a relatively limited medium that speaks to a narrow segment of the market to have an outsize influence on American politics. Given this, the consequences of such programs extend broadly, even if they only reach a limited fraction of the public.
Excerpted from How Partisan Media Polarize America by MATTHEW LEVENDUSKY. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Matthew Levendusky is assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Philadelphia.
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